s105g00 Somerton Park Second Sunday of Easter 30/4/2000
"As the Father has sent me, so I send you ... If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." John 20:21,23.
We are so used to these words of Jesus that I suspect that we rarely, if ever, consider how strange they are. Jesus is saying that God in heaven condemns to eternal damnation other people on our advise ... Of course when we start to think just how many people we would want in heaven with us, I would hardly think many of us would actually want even 144,000. We would pick and choose rather more carefully than that.
I am reminded of the scene in the comedy television series "Keeping Up Appearances" where Hyacinth and Richard are in bed and Hyacinth, in that exquisite manner which she does so well, says how much she is looking forward to living eternally with Richard in heaven. Poor long suffering Richard rolls his eyes upwards as much as to say, "That isn't quite my idea of bliss", but of course, gentleman as he always is, doesn't say anything. :-)
I mean God must have "lost his (or her) mind" to give the outcome of eternal salvation to human beings. We all know that God can do it so much better than humanity. God, after all, knows the secrets of our hearts ...
We are so used to sin and forgiveness being in the province of the priest, that it may not have ever occurred to us that these words have any relevance to lay people at all.
And in my experience of the Church, 99 times out of 100, when sin and forgiveness is mentioned, it is assumed that it's all about God forgiving us, through confession and absolution, either privately with a priest, or in the general confession which we say together during our service. We well enough know the scripture that our forgiveness is somewhat conditional on our forgiving others, and we know intellectually that this is a nice idea, but, of course really no one ELSE is really harmed if we don't ... In the end God will forgive me - 'cos I come to Church and do all the right things ... I suggest that by these mental subterfuges we avoid these very stark words of Jesus, that we condemn to eternal damnation those who we don't forgive - not me as a priest, but us all as human beings. Other people are harmed.
In the last issue of the Adelaide Church Guardian, the front page headline blazed: ""We are all ministers" says Archbishop ..." Let me say that in the light of these words I heartily agree - but that does not mean that we all run around in ecclesiastical garb telling people what they should or shouldn't do. If you want to know where I see lay ministry supporting, or not supporting ordained ministry, it is precisely here.
How could I refuse absolution to someone who came to me genuinely sorry for their sins? How could any of us? I would point out that if I or anyone else refused to forgive, when asked, we are as likely to be condemning ourselves to eternal damnation as well as the other.
Now, I am not saying that we all have to all get on with one another. The picturesque description of early Church life from our first reading from Acts is precisely that - picturesque and idealised. If ever such a situation actually reigned, it was for a very short period indeed. The book of Acts itself later tells us of "dissension within the ranks" quite plainly. In fact of course, if there never was any "dissension in the ranks" there would be no occasion to forgive or be forgiven.
The day I began this sermon, there was an article in our Adelaide "Advertiser" (p26) saying that the meaning of Easter had been lost., where a poll was taken "which found almost half ... residents do not know the meaning of Easter ... three in four of the population claimed to belong to a Christian Church, but only half of them knew Easter Sunday was the day Jesus rose from the dead ... (and) ... only 52% knew (Good Friday) was the day when Christ was crucified. However 75% said they would be buying Easter eggs."
Before we get too upset, may I point out that these words of Jesus tells us that we are all sent, NOT to go quoting the Bible at people, NOT to suggest how they might lives their lives in a more holy way, NOT even to talk to them about Jesus. We ARE sent, primarily to forgive - to allow that others have a right to exist.
The parable of the Good Samaritan, familiar to us all, has the religiously heretic helping the religiously orthodox. The Samaritan didn't engage the Jew in a debate about the relative merits of their differing faiths, as did the woman at the well tried to do with Jesus. The heretic was commended for his charity despite his (perhaps) misplaced religious affiliation; whereas the priest and the Levite, whose faith required them to "pass by on the other side" were obviously not commended. The FAITH of the priest and the Levite needed broadening - to include the other, which is the point of the parable.
The Risen Christ tells us that we are sent, not to tell people, teach people, exhort people, convert people, but to forgive people. And curiously, forgiveness is what Timothy Miller is really talking about when he speaks about living a life with compassionate thoughts. His words are about strategies to help us forgive others who offend us. He says we should look at the other person and say to ourselves: "This person ultimately wants about the same things that I want, for about the same reasons. We differ only in the strategies we choose and the opportunities and talents available to us. ... No one is absolutely entitled to get what he (or she) wants. No one gets all that he (or she) wants. Everyone is ultimately disappointed. No supreme being or mysterious force decides who will be rewarded and who will be disappointed. No one deserves pain. No one deserves to avoid pain. Pain is an inevitable part of every life. No supreme being or mysterious force decides who will suffer and who will not. No one can be absolutely sure that he (or she) is right and their adversary is wrong. No one can ever be sure that his (or her) ends justify his (or her) means. All people fear losing what they have in just the same way that I fear losing what I have. No one - including me - wants to be powerless; few people willingly surrender their power, regardless of how illegitimate I think their power is. When someone else feels sad, or scared, or angry, it feels about the same way to him or her as it does to me. Other people justify their methods for getting what they want in just the same way I justify my methods for getting what I want." ("How to Want What You Have" p 110)
Perhaps to put a human face to all this, Miller suggests an ordinary scenario - "Your family's visit to a public park is spoiled by unfamiliar, unattractive people who play loud, unpleasant music, build illegal smoky bonfires, and allow their trash to blow around in the wind." Most of us would react by thinking something like "I wish all the unpleasant, unattractive, bad - mannered people in the world would just sort of disappear", and leave grumpy that our day had been ruined. He suggests we instead remind ourselves that "These people wish that the park was all theirs, in exactly the same way that I wish it were all mine." (p105, 111) We may be still upset at their actions, but the heat of our own anger may be somewhat lessened.
Let me state the importance of all this. Just how many conflicts are there in this world, where individuals, from one side or the other, indeed go to a Christian Church. Invariably they will say "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us" thinking that it doesn't actually mean "Forgive me my sins as I forgive those who sin against me". My continuing hatred is justified, because ... Our continuing hatred is justified because ... In the meantime, someone else's loved one is blown up or starves to death ...
Of course for Christians "compassion" is not an optional extra. St Luke records Jesus saying: "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (6:36) and St Paul tells the compassionate to exercise their gift with "cheerfulness." (Romans 12:8).
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